Wednesday, July 06, 2005


Proletarian poetry

The most important literary movement in the United States in the 20th century was the Proletarian literature movement, which was at its most active and took its most cohesive shape during the 1930's, though it existed prior to those years and has remained alive since.

Many literary histories from the academic fringes and the "avant"-garde either ignore the Proletarian movement or make light of its significance. In fact, at one time or another many of the greatest American poets and writers of the past century were in one way or another associated with the loosely defined movement.

Among the poets, Muriel Rukeyser, Langston Hughes, Meridel LeSueur, Kenneth Fearing, Margaret Walker, Kenneth Patchen, Joseph Kalar, Sol Funaroff, Ruth Lechlitner, Joy Davidman, Norman Rosten, John Beecher, Genevieve Taggard, Josephine W. Johnson, Lola Ridge...

And, a little later, Thomas McGrath, Edwin Rolfe, Don Gordon, Naomi Replansky, Bert Meyers, Clemente Soto Velez, Olga Cabral...

(Among earlier predecessors, Carl Sandburg, Stephen Vincent Benet, Edwin Markham, James Weldon Johnson, Arturo Giovanitti, Sarah Cleghorn...John Greenleaf Whittier, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Emma Lazarus, Walt Whitman...)

These are the live,
Not silhouettes or dead men.
That dull murmer is their tread on the street.
Those brass quavers are their shouts.
Here is the wind blowing through the crowded square.
Here is the violence and secret change.
And these are figures of life beneath the sea.
These are the lovely women
And the exhilarations that die.
Here is a stone lying on the sidewalk
In the shadow of the wall.

(Kenneth Fearing, from "These Are the Live," in An Anthology of Modern Poetry edited by Selden Rodman, Modern Library, 1938.)

Poetry ringing with the hammer and sweep of the collective work and collective rebellion, in misery and joy, that has built the world through the millenia that humans have walked on the earth.

But what if they stood aside,
Who hold the earth so careless in the crook of their arms?

What of the flamboyant cities
And the lights guttering out like candles in a wind...
And the armies halted...
And the train midway on the mountain
And idle men chaffing across the trenches...
And the cursing and lamentation
And the clamor for grain
shut in the mills of the world?
(Lola Ridge, from "The Legion of Iron," in the Rodman anthology noted above.)

In 1932 John D. Rockefeller, Jr., commissioned the artist Diego Rivera to paint a mural in Rockfeller Center in New York. When Rockefeller saw that Rivera had included an image of the Russian Bolshevik leader Lenin in the mural, he demanded that Rivera remove the Lenin image and paint something in its place. When Rivera refused, Rockefeller had the mural destroyed. A poet commented on this, none other than E.B. White (author of the renowned children's book Charlotte's Web). In White's poem -- also quoted here from the Selden Rodman anthology cited above -- Rockefeller speaks to Rivera:

"For twenty-one thousand conservative bucks
"You painted a radical. I say shucks,
"I never could rent the offices --
"The capitalistic offices.
"For this, as you know, is a public hall
"And people want doves, or a tree in fall,
"And though your art I dislike to hamper,
"I owe a little to God and Gramper,
'And after all,
"It's my wall..."

"We'll see if it is," said Rivera.
One of the better recent critical works dealing, in part, with the poets and poetry of the Proletarian movement is Repression and Recovery: Modern American Poetry and the Politics of Cultural Memory, 1910-1945 by Cary Nelson, published 1992 by University of Wisconsin Press. Although at times Nelson's approach strikes me as a little overly cautious, he nevertheless brings to light the work and very existence of many poets who have been half buried in the shadows of history for much of the later 20th century.

And the tradition continues, on through to the present and beyond: Margaret Randall, Anya Achtenberg, Dale Jacobson, Etheridge Knight, Luis. J. Rodriguez, Adrian C. Louis, Robert Edwards, Sharon Doubiago, Wanda Coleman, Doren Robbins, Maggie Jaffe, Sesshu Foster, Nellie Wong, Roy McBride, Mary McAnally, Christopher Butters, Rob Whitbeck, Naomi Quinonez, Wendy Rose, William Witherup, Julia Stein, Janice Mirikitani...

The poetry of the poets named above is important because it reminds us of the potential for furthering human life in a free and thriving world, breaking through the crumbling walls of a moribund and long-useless market system that considers nothing of value unless it can be bought and sold. We are more than that; even in temporary silence, we shout and we sing.

In the cotton fields,
Gentle breeze:
Beware the hour
It uproots trees!
(Langston Hughes, from "Warning," in The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes edited by Arnold Rampersad, Vintage Books, 1995.)

Very informative. Thanks for the essay, Lyle.

Take care,

Yes, I appreciated it, too, especially those fantastic poetry passages embedded in it. Ninth grade? You were truly aware. I was pondering the meaning of life at that age, but it wasn't until my twenties and Nam that I can say I truly developed a political conscience.

Hope you don't mind if I add you to my blog links.
Hi Lyle,
Another good piece of writing. Thought provoking as usual. Seems like this would interest you... it's Joseph Freeman's Introduction to Proletarian Lit in the US:

Best wishes,
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